This paper traces the changing status of the school as a counter culture in the anthropological and historical literature, in particular from the moment when compulsory mass schooling assumed the function of ideological state apparatus in the post-revolutionary 19th century West. It then focuses attention on what may be called the New School, which could be said to represent an evolved, postmodern embodiment of the social archetype of the school as interruption of the status quo. It emerged in the form of schools initially associated with Romanticism and with socialist libertarian or ‘anarchist’ impulses, and moved, if temporarily, into the educational mainstream in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the left sector of the Progressive Education movement, proliferated in the 1960s and 70s in various school reform movements, and is a constant presence today in the theory and practice of those schools that identify themselves as ‘democratic’. It is based on principles of adult–child dialogue and direct democratic practice. Examples that we have of the New School tend to be characterised by material and activity environments that value variety, emergence, choice, emotional safety, self-initiation and self-organisation; that are multi-sensorial and polysymbolic; and that are organised on the principles associated with mastery learning, social learning theory and play theory—that is, moderate complexity and optimal cognitive arousal as exemplary conditions for learning.